1 February 2013

Rwanda: Antonia Locatteli, the Unsung Hero of Bugesera

Photo: New Times
Remembering a fallen hero (file photo).

MOST OF us know what some members of the Catholic clergy did or failed to do during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, but many were not flattering.

For a church that has been trying to remodel its image for the last 18 years, it has a few of its members who helped diminish the blot.

On the night of March 9, 1992, a little known Italian missionary who had been living in Rwanda for 20 years was assassinated in Kanzenze, current Bugesera District.

55-year-old Antonia Locatteli had witnessed the massacres being perpetrated against the Tutsi community in the district.

The Habyarimana regime was not only experimenting the efficacy of the killing machine they had just put in place, the Interahamwe militia, it was also gauging the international community's response.

As we celebrate Heroes' Day, Locatteli's name is glaringly absent on the official list of heroes we are honouring today.

Not only did Locatteli give refuge to hundreds of Tutsis fleeing the killings, she was also the first person to sound the alarm on the well orchestrated massacres by informing diplomatic missions present in Kigali as well as major media organisations. The next day, she was killed to silence her, but word was already out.

One may argue that Locatteli did not really fathom the degree of danger she was running into by interfering in the government's macabre plans, but that could be anyone's guess, the important thing is that she took action that saved many lives at the cost of hers.

The same experimental massacres were taking place in northern and western Rwanda, in Kibilira and Mukingo communes, to be exact, populated by the Bagogwe community.

The killings of the Bagogwe, spearheaded by the then Bourgmestre of Mukingo, Juvenal Kajelijeli, did not come out until later, yet there were other Locattelis in the area who chose to keep mum. In 1994, Kajelijeli was able to put into practice his 1992 lessons to great effect.

He was pronounced guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and sentenced to life in prison. Ironically, his sentence was reduced to 45 years because his "fundamental rights had been seriously violated during his arbitrary arrest in Benin in 1998".

Kajelijeli is back in Benin serving out his sentence, Locatteli lies peacefully in Nyamata Parish grounds, having been among the first victims of the "experimental killings".

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